The Last Post

January 19, 2009
Short Description: 

As we enter 2009 a question presents itself:  Will it be possible to maintain any freedom of religious belief for those of us who have an absolutist understanding of Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life in the “new mix of politics and religion”?

As I close this two month, once a week blog, I want to thank George Hunsberger for inviting me to share my thoughts with a larger audience. After three years as mentor of the Journey Group Nurturing Missional Character George was well aware of the risks he was taking! It has been a great experience for me, indeed, opening up new vistas.

As a result of my blogs I have a growing awareness of the increased research in all the spheres of my interests, which I have been trying to connect within my present vocation as a rural politician and theologian trying to effect change.  

Change! It is definitely challenging to be living in a day of historical transition. 
Michael Higgins wrote about A new year, a new mix of religion and politics in the Globe and Mail of December 24, 2008. The subheading was Bush-era faith is history. It's an intellectual journey for Obama. 
Higgins wrote: “The coming year will not mark the erasure of religion from the public arena as some fear and others herald. Rather, we will see some instructive reconfigurations. Rick Warren's prayer will be more symbolic than pious - for some, an unnerving presage of a new politics, and for others, an invitation to abandon the culture-war polarities of the past.”  What will it take to abandon the culture-war polarities of the past?
Personally, I sense I am heading into what Jacque Ellul called ‘the incognito’ which opens up a whole new opportunity of private study, research, and application.  Checking what "Incognito" might mean in the secular realm I discovered for example the music group Incognito. Founder of the group Jean-Paul Maunick describes why he chose Incognito in a surprisingly applicable way:  "Incognito" is a Latin word meaning Unknown (or in disguise). I chose this name because I thought it apt for a project where the music and its message is more important than the individuals playing and creating it. It also allows us to change musical directions from album to album and keeps our audience guessing what we will do next. It’s a journey into the unknown, it’s the element of surprise!”  
The theme of incognito comes forth in Jim Houston’s book Joyful Exiles: Life in Christ on the Dangerous Edge of Things, (InterVarsity Press, 2006). On the cover David G. Benner writes: " Be forewarned. This book is seriously countercultural! It presents not just a challenge to our secular culture but more seriously a challenge to the comfortable ways we have shaped Christian culture. It is a call to embrace our identity as exiles and to live joyfully and prophetically from that place. It is a call to live on the edge, for it is there that we can be truly open to God’s presence in the world and the invitations to engagement with the world’s problems and challenges."
Life on the edge! Life as a Joyful Exile! Life lived in the Incognito!  Missional Life: beyond strategizing and programming.
As we enter 2009 a question presents itself: Will it be possible to maintain any freedom of religious belief for those of us who have an absolutist understanding of Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life in the “new mix of politics and religion” written about by Michael Higgins?
In the search for new ways to speak into this global culture of politics and religion there is a tidal wave of historical research with application to our day. A quick look at recent book publications at Fuller on-line bookstore produced the following selected list of titles that were of interest as 2009 begins:
Kim, September 2008
Beyond Christendom: Globalization, African Migration and the Transformation of the
West - Jehu Hanciles January, 2009
The Fathers - Pope Benedict XVI, August 2008
December 9, 2008
December 2008
October 8, 2008
A. Heath, October 1, 2008
Rejesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church - Michael Frost, January 15, 2009
and Spiritual Power - Charles E. Van Engen, March 2008
My wife Patricia and I continue to process new paradigms as we reflect on world events from our little house on the Prairies.   One thing that we do notice is words like tolerance, fanaticism, civility, and fundamentalism are all under review. For example, one of the Lebel Lectures in Christian Ethics at the University of Calgary (February 2, 2009) being presented by Otto Selles, Professor of French, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI is titled Tolerance: Virtue or Vice?
“Tolerance” is a slippery word. For some it is an essential value that holds together a pluralistic society; others see it as a form of moral relativism, a sign that society lacks stable beliefs. When used, does tolerance refer to religion, sexual identity, politics, taste in music, or all of the above? Do the U.S., Canada, and Europe have similar or differing views of what “tolerance” means? 
Of course for Christians in the early centuries of the Roman Empire, the question of tolerance and freedom of religious belief was an issue of life and death. Roman law believed it unjust to convict somebody for being something. Accordingly Christians were required to perform the act of burning incense to the god Caesar. 
“The worship involved merely throwing a pinch of incense on a civic altar, but to refuse indicated contempt of the emperor and merited capital punishment.” (Joseph Wilson Trigg)
What will the “pinch of incense” be for us as North American Christians? 

The Voice of the Martyrs - Religious Freedom in Canada

Further to this "last post" the front cover of The Voice of the Martyrs (May 2009) presents an article titled Shut Down, Shut Up and Shut Out: Religious Freedom in Canada;

Shut down, shut up and shut out: Religious freedom in Canada

By Janet Epp Buckingham (Associate professor of political science and history at Trinity Western University and Director of the Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa)

Canada prides itself on being a free and tolerant society. Yet many Christians are feeling that Canadian society is increasingly intolerant of their beliefs. So which is it? Is Canadian society a tolerant or intolerant one?

The reality is that the majority of Canadians do not go to church, and their values have increasingly moved away from Christian morals. Where once aborting a baby was unthinkable, many now consider it a fundamental human right (even though in law, it is not a right). As societal values have changed, Christian morals have not. It is therefore natural that Christians will increasingly be at odds with mainstream society.

Religious institutions

In 2001, Trinity Western University, a private Christian university, won a major victory at the Supreme Court of Canada. The university had been denied a faculty of education because its code of conduct prohibited homosexual sex. The code of conduct prohibited other activity as well but that was the concern of the B.C. College of Teachers. The Supreme Court ruled that the university could have a code of conduct. If it met the standard for a faculty of education, it should not be denied based on its code of conduct.

Fast forward to 2008 and a human rights complaint against Christian Horizons, the largest private provider of residential care to mentally disabled adults in Ontario. Christian Horizons has a code of conduct for all staff that prohibits, among other things, homosexual sex. A staff member was let go after disclosing that she had become a lesbian. An Ontario human rights tribunal ruled that Christian Horizons cannot discriminate in hiring staff. While the decision really focused on the issue of sexual orientation, the tribunal seemed to also say that Christian Horizons cannot require that staff be Christians. The decision was based on the narrow exemption in the Ontario Human Rights Code that is limited to organizations that provide services to their own constituency. Because Christian Horizons does not require the adults it serves to be Christians, it does not fit in the exemption.

Christian Horizons has appealed the case to the Ontario Superior Court. It would undermine many Christian outreach organizations – ministries to the poor and homeless, for example – if they cannot hire Christians. How can they maintain a Christian ministry?

Freedom of conscience

The most serious violation of religious conscience currently is that of marriage commissioners, who are being forced to solemnize same-sex marriages or lose their licence to marry. Marriage commissioners are not clergy and solemnize civil marriages. But some marriage commissioners are Christians and include Christian content in the weddings they perform. Orville Nichols, in Saskatchewan, refused to solemnize a same-sex marriage and is facing a human rights complaint. In two other cases, currently on hold pending the decision in the Nichols case, marriage commissioners made human rights complaints against provincial governments in Saskatchewan and Manitoba in relation to official letters requiring that they solemnize same-sex marriages.

In general, human rights law in Canada requires that freedom of conscience be respected. If there is a way to allow an exemption for those who have religious objections to certain types of work, they should be accommodated to the point of undue hardship. For example, a Shoppers Drug Mart was required to accommodate a Jehovah’s Witness who did not want to have to put out a display of poinsettias for Christmas because Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate Christmas. If this is the standard, why are marriage commissioners not being accommodated?

Over the last few years, we have seen a variety of Christian professionals, from teachers to pharmacists, from doctors to printers, face legal consequences for following their Christian morals. These professionals have paid a huge price in terms of publicity, and legal fees, to stand up for their beliefs. Probably the best known of these is Scott Brockie, a Toronto printer who refused to print materials for an organization that, in Brockie’s view, promoted homosexuality. Brockie faced a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Commission and then brought an appeal to the Ontario Superior Court. Ultimately, Brockie lost the battle, but felt that he won the war. The court said that while Brockie cannot refuse to do work for an organization, he may refuse to print material that violates his religious beliefs. It is a fine line that may be difficult to determine in practice.

A teacher, Chris Kempling, in British Columbia and a nurse, Bill Whatcott, in Saskatchewan, have both been disciplined by their professional associations for “conduct unbecoming” for publicizing their views on homosexuality and abortion, respectively. Both Kempling and Whatcott based their opinions on their Christian beliefs but also included facts and figures that they felt made their issues of concern to the broader public.

Nurses, pharmacists and doctors have had issues both with their professional associations and human rights commission complaints for refusing to provide professional services that violate their consciences. Cristina Alarcon, for example, lost her job at a Calgary pharmacy because she refused to dispense prescriptions that violated her conscience. For Catholics, this can include birth control pills as well as abortifacients. A doctor in Barrie, Ontario, faced professional discipline for refusing to prescribe birth control for single women patients.

But any Christian who is a member of a professional association, and this includes engineers, medical professionals, teachers, lawyers, accountants, etc., live under a professional code of conduct and can be disciplined by a professional association. This means that they can be stripped of their professional licence, or suspended for a period of time. This obviously has a significant impact on the ability to earn a living.

In a similar way, pro-life student clubs have lost their club status on campus, leaving the group without the ability to have meetings on campus. Several campuses have shut down pro-life meetings, most recently at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, and pro-life displays. At the University of Calgary, the university went so far as to charge students with trespassing who participated in the Genocide Awareness Project, which displays pictures of aborted foetuses alongside Holocaust photos.

These issues are clearly not outright restrictions on practicing one’s religion. But they are more subtle ways that society restricts certain religious beliefs with which it disagrees. The message is, “Keep your weird beliefs to yourself.”

Freedom of religious practice

The Supreme Court of Canada affirmed in the 2004 Same-sex Marriage Reference, that “The protection of freedom of religion afforded by s. 2(a) of the Charter is broad and jealously guarded in our Charter jurisprudence.” That statement is true, as far as it applies to individual religious practices. In the past few years, the courts have upheld the right of Orthodox Jews to build succah huts on the balconies of their high-rise condominium to celebrate Succat. They have upheld the right of a Sikh boy to wear a kirpan, a ceremonial dagger, at school in violation of a no-weapons policy. The Supreme Court is currently considering a case where Hutterites have asked for an exemption to the requirement to have a photo driver’s licence as they believe it violates the second commandment.

These cases are challenging for the courts because there is always a competing group or value that is being protected. For the Orthodox Jews, there was a condominium agreement that clearly stated that there were to be no structures on balconies. The school that restricted the Sikh boy from wearing a dagger to school wanted to protect all students from escalating violence. Alberta requires a photo on the drivers licence because they are frequently used for identification for other purposes and it is an issue of security.

One of the most difficult cases currently before the courts, although just at the first level, is that of polygamist Winston Blackmore of Bountiful, B.C. He is a leader in a fundamentalist Mormon group that practices polygamy and is said to have 20 wives, some of them under age. But Blackmore is claiming religious freedom. After redefining marriage for same-sex couples, it will be difficult to deny polygamous marriage to Mormons, even if it is at odds with the rest of society.

Final thoughts

Canadian Christians are free to practice their religion and follow their religious beliefs to a point. Our courts have strongly protected the right to practice religion in private. But when professionals ask for a right to conscience, when religious practices threaten social institutions, when Christian organizations discriminate in hiring, there is not so much protection. When Christian morals collide with social values, Christians are increasingly shut down, shut up and shut out.